The saying “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” can certainly apply to veterinary students. The stories that result help keep vets humble in the years to come.

I remember the pride associated with buying my first stethoscope as a veterinary student. I immediately listened to my dog’s heart and panicked. Every time he inhaled his heart rate sped up. Every time he exhaled, his heart rate plummeted. The changes were dramatic and obviously couldn’t be normal based on the extensive knowledge that I had already gained in two weeks of veterinary school. What to do? I calmed myself down by thinking, “Okay, we’ve got an excellent cardiology department here. I’ll just make him an appointment. Should I call it in as an emergency? No, he doesn’t look that sick. I think he’ll make it until morning.

Thankfully, the reception desk for non-emergencies didn’t open for hours, and I used that time to do a little research. I learned that some dogs have a very pronounced (and very normal) sinus arrhythmia. Their hearts are supposed to do that speed up, slow down thing. Who knew? Owen would live after all.

My roommate had a similar experience as a “wet behind the ears” freshman. She was at her friend’s house that bordered a horse pasture where, one day (gasp), they saw some horses lying down. Vaguely remembering hearing somewhere that horses sleep standing up, they feared a disease outbreak or mass poisoning of some sort and called one of the large animal clinicians at the hospital. Surely doing his best not to laugh, he assured them that horses can doze either standing up or sleeping down, and he didn’t think they had anything to worry about.

My roommate and I can take joint responsibility for one last story. She was a sophomore and a new ferret owner and I was a freshman with even less experience with the little buggers. It was playtime in ferret land, so we opened up the cage door to let them out. Louis Ferretkhan (yes, that really was his name) bounded out, but the female (I can’t remember her name, she was a witch and I think I’ve blocked it out) just lay there, breathing v…e…r…y s…l…o…w…l…y. My roommate hollered and poked and shook her – nothing. This ferret was completely nonresponsive and based on all our cumulative experience, obviously on death’s doorstep.

As luck would have it, an exotic animal veterinarian lived across the street from us (it helps to reside in a small town with a vet school during times like these). He answered the door to our frenzied ringing, calmly performed a brief physical on the front stoop, and said, “She’s just sleeping. Ferrets sometimes sleep so deeply they are hard to wake up. She’ll be fine.”

He was right. She woke up to his insistent prodding a minute or so later, looked around with a “How the H-E-double hockey sticks did I get out here” expression on her face, and tried to bite him, which was perfectly normal behavior for her.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Jaimie Duplass / via Shutterstock